The Beginnings of Chicana Punk
The late 1970’s and early 1980’s witnessed the Chicana communities of East Los Angeles and Hollywood craft “a punk ‘do-it-yourself’ Chicana grassroots feminist cultural production” (Habell-Pallan 162). During this time, Punk was on the rise as a mode of artistic catharsis in response to frustrations generated by war, segregation, and the Chicano Civil Rights movement. Specifically, Chicanas wielded Punk’s transgressive sensibility to dismantle prevailing racialized and gendered expectations of Chicana women, thereby molding Punk’s defiant essence into an aural call for change.
The 1970s’ punk movement offered Chicanas extensive ideological space to promulgate their discontent with presiding societal norms. “Punk’s critique… of poverty, sexuality, class inequality, and war” resonated deeply with “working-class East Los Angeles Youth” (Habell-Pallan 163). Many young Chicanas watched the American government draft a great deal of friends and family members to the Vietnam war. Some Chicanos served willingly – believing serving would demonstrate patriotism to the American government. These efforts were done in vain. American government gave little recognition to Chicanos’ sacrifices, a deficiency that fostered deep resentment within their communities. Simultaneously, Chicanas contended with familial pressure. Within the family sphere, Patriarchal norms demanded that Chicanas adhere to traditional forms of feminine gender expression equating with their loss of voice, limited control of their bodies, and docile compliance. These confining conditions propagated Chicanas’ resentment and eventually ignited the Chicana punk movement in the latter half of the seventies.
Chicana acerbity additionally stemmed from the “city’s history of physically and economically segregating Chicanos from the wealthy West side” (Habell-Pallan 163). Racist housing restrictions constricted communities of color to impoverished areas void of safe parks, living spaces, and properly funded schools. Chicanxs’ socio-economic segregation therefore dramatically decreased youth’s accessibility to resources purposed for their cultural and social advancement. Withholding such assets further disenfranchised Chicanas, but rather than acquiesce, Chicanas honed the cultural practice of rasquache, or “‘making do’ with limited resources” (Habell-Pallan 163). Rasquache resonated deeply with Punk subculture’s DIY sensibility because it continually pushed punks to innovate and devise indemnifying tools in the absence of established supportive structures.
Resilience Within Chicana Punk Performance
Chicana Punk youth necessarily carried this resilient practice into a music industry that “paradoxically promised inclusion strictly on the basis of ethnic difference” (Gunckel 13). At the time, record labels could not imagine profiting from Chicana punk bands, causing them to go unrecognized. The few scouts who took notice “demanded that they produce an identifiably ethnic sound (Gunckel 11)”. Thus, the very space that enticed them with liberty of expression adversely pressed them to embody stereotyped labels. Chicana performers responded by turning “to alternative outlets and institutions. (Gunckel 13). Many punkera bands established their own labels and zines (fan-run magazines) to publicize, produce, and promote the music that so vitally gave them voice. Audience’s positive reception of these rasquache-driven media outlets obliterated assertions that exclusively placed confidence on mainstream pathways of music production. Zines and grassroots labels typified Punk’s DIY temperament and validated it as a progressive phenomenon that defied the music industry’s attempt to homogenize and diminish Chicana Punk identities.
The early punk movement tenaciously upheld pursuing individuality and power as another way to combat pigeonholing. Chicanas’ very performances challenged traditional female gender roles of meekness and want of voice. To them, performance through punk mediums “meant stepping outside of… gender roles… socioeconomic conditions, immigrant status and ethnic and cultural roles.” (Gurza). The mild celebrity status Chicanas gained from exposing themselves as musicians, provided them with a platform from which they could articulate their qualms and deconstruct simplistic labels. The stage validated Chicanas’ diverse experiences, but lyrics serviced them with the perfect manifestation of individual empowerment.
Chicana Punks utilized lyrics to condemn constrictive gender roles. Lyrics often articulated oppositional stances through which punkeras expressed “their private rage… [about] the violence done to their bodies and their mother’s bodies” (Habell-Pallan 165). Punk subculture’s sympathy for the subversive encouraged discourse on topics regularly silenced by overbearing patriarchal sentiments that diminished women to sheer reproductive bodies. In this fashion, Punk music gave Chicanas power to openly reclaim authority over their minds and conjointly, over their bodies. The movement transforms previously imposing labels into criticisms from which to redefine and complicate Chicana identity.
Alice Bag, Punkera frontwoman of The Bags, exemplifies this through the band’s lyrics. In the Bag’s song Violence Girl, Bag fervently describes a female subject who has taken “too much of the domesticated world” and is “tearing it to pieces” (Violence Girl 7). The lyrics’ depiction of a female subject behaving violently, oppose misogynistic idealizations of women’s inherent meekness, while the song’s impassioned attitude prompts Chicana spectators to identify with the female subject’s rage and take a stance against the ‘domesticated world’. Violence Gir’s unyielding tone is also present throughout other songs; In Babylonian Gorgon, the lyrics declare:
“Don’t need no false reasons for why I’m out of place
I don’t goose step for the masquerade…
Iv poisoned blood when I’m pissed!” (Babylonian Gorgon The Bags)
The first line relates cognizance of marginalization, resonating especially with East L.A’s segregated youth. The palpable exclusion Chicanas experienced during the seventies and eighties dissuaded Chicana punkeras from seeking admittance to systems that rejected their idiosyncrasies, automatically actuating their loss of individuality. The final line in this excerpt depicts Punk’s unregulated vitality. The Bag’s unashamed aggressive inconformity conveys Chicanas’ transgressive fervor, an emotional privilege typically accorded strictly to men. What’s more, the band used costume – paper bags over their heads, to accentuate their sense of boundless nonconformity. The Bag’s anonymity depreciated prejudice arising from cursory analyses of image and effectively shifted audiences’ focus from their appearance to their symbolically transgressive behavior.
The Brat was another infamous female-fronted Chicana punk band who celebrated Chicana women’s agency through lyrics and performance. In the song Misogyny, vocalist Teresa Cobarruvias critiques sexist devaluations of women;
“A woman’s mind is a priceless gift…
Woman’s beauty is in her mind
All you see is the sexual kind” (Habell-pallan 169)
In this excerpt, Cobarruvias’ lyrics negate assumptions suggesting women exist only to serve men’s desires. The lyrics imply women are essentially multi-faceted beings, perpetually transcending narrow purposes of aesthetic existence. The empowering message embodies Punk’s tendency of giving voice to silenced groups by artistic means. The song prescribes freedom of expression as a possible solution to constrictive paradigms, a sensibility present in other modes of art within the scene.
Throughout the seventies and eighties, Asco, an East L.A.-based art collective, incarnated an unrestrictive spirit by incorporating Punk aesthetic into their performance art. Patssi Valdez, a member of Asco, especially epitomizes this cultural amalgamation in her performance piece, Instant Mural (see below).
“With fishnet stockings and eye-catching jewelry, Valdez combines East L.A. glamour with… Chicana punk’s investment in [disrupting] accepted notions of femininity” (McMahon 130). Valdez’s piece couples palatably feminine ‘East L.A glamour’ with daring punk aesthetic. Her piece creates a commanding image of female agency that challenges demure constructions of femininity. The visual eccentricity of Valdez’s character in Instant Mural engages self-fashioning as a tool strategically wielded to reconstruct femininity into an incarnation of unapologetic individual assertion.
Valdez’s artistry in Instant Mural is a manifestation of what Jose Muños terms Disidentification; “a performative mode of tactical recognition [minorities use to] resist… the oppressive and normalizing discourse of dominant ideology” (Muñoz 97). This form of resistance allows Chicana artists to become living embodiments of oppositional, DIY sensibilities found at the heart of Punk subculture. The practice implements its effects without diminishing individuals to clichés. Disidentification augments performers’ efficacy in developing and exhibiting powerful “constructed and contradictory” identities (Muñoz 115). To illustrate, punkeras acknowledge that though they are accepted members of Chicanx communities, they are susceptible to censure on the basis of gender, queerness or both. Punk aesthetic entices every facet of Chicanas’ identities by promising artistic sympathy and a space that hearkens and reverberates their silenced experiences.
Despite the advances the punk movement effectuated from the seventies and beyond, Chicanas continue facing sexism, queerphobia, and patriarchal pressure to abide by conservative gender norms. For this reason, Chicana punk remains a keystone artistic modality today. East L.A.’s Chiacanx folk band, Las Cafeteras, transmit this message through their music. Las Cafeteras’ songs voice the Chicana community’s historical struggles, ranging from issues of immigration to those of feminism. In particular, they fuse “punk, hip-hop, beat music, cumbia and rock” to promote validation of disenfranchised communities’ disregarded hardships. The myriad of genres Las Cafeteras incorporate into their music echoes the intersectionality present within the groups they represent. Frontwoman Denise Carlos notes; “There’s an East L.A. music renaissance happening right now and a lot of us are using music as a tool… to communicate our struggles and successes as a people.” (Vasquez 22). The band purposes music’s universality to resonate with a plethora of cultural identities, mirroring the early punk movement’s intention of communicating struggle and resilience through music. Las Cafeteras are just one example of how modern Chicanx rock bands adopt similar ideologies and build on the musical foundations of the past.
Vans® expands on this progressive theme in an online visual narrative. The video series chronicles the present-day diffusion of Punk subculture into East Los Angeles backyards. Their segment entitled: East Los – The Show, features Chicana Punk band Apostasis. In the video, Apostasis speaks on the unprofitability of playing backyard shows. Their incentive for performing at these shows stems from the gratification “that people can feel what you’re feeling” (Vans). Paralleling Las Cafeteras’ value of music as a universal agent for connection, Apostasis keeps the backyard scene alive as an emblem for Chicana youth’s transcendental punk spirit.
The Chicana punk movement would not be what it is today without the Los Angeles artists and organizations that maintain its vitality. Both well established artists like Alice Bag and up-and-comers like Apostasis continually pave the way for other Chicana artist and art collectives to remain visible within the L.A. punk scene. In league with organizations like Heart of L.A. and grassroots music festivals such as LadyFest Los Angeles, Chicanas collectively support the constant outpour of artistic punkera expression. They are the independent limbs of Los Angeles’ Chicana body, one that requires nourishment and support from Chicanxs across the city, one that requires nourishment from individuals like you. Make sure to support your local artists in order to keep the Punkera body of Los Angeles steadfastly asserting its power against constricting societal norms.
Babylonian Gorgon The Bags WITH LYRICS!!! Perf. The Bags. Youtube. SuperRyan80, 13 July 2011. Web. 26 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW9y1V2_hE4>.
Bag, Alice. Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage: A Chicana Punk Story. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2011. Print.
Gunckel, Colin. “Vex Marks the Spot: The Intersection of Art and Punk in East Los Angeles.” Vexing: Female Voices of East L.A. Punk. Claremont, CA: Claremont Museum of Art, 2008. Print.
Gurza, Agustin. “Museum Showcases Female Punk Scene.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 10 May 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. <http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-culture10-2008may10-story.html>.
Habell-Pallan, Michelle. “”Soy Punkera, Y Que?” Sexuality, Translocality, and Punk in Los Angeles and Beyond.” Rockin’ Las Americas. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 2004. 160-78. Print.
McMahon, Marci R. Domestic Negotiations: Gender, Nation, and Self-fashioning in US Mexicana and Chicana Literature and Art. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013. Print.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1999. Print.
Valdez, Patssi. Instant Mural. Digital image. Gronk by Marisela Norte. ASCO, 1974. Web. 26 Feb. 2016. <http://bombmagazine.org/article/2863/gronk>.
Vans. “#LIVINGOFFTHEWALL - Episode 5 - East Los - The Show.” YouTube. YouTube, 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1Ahc9ImA8k>.
Vasquez, Tina. “Riffs of Passage.” Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture 62 (2014): 20-25. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.